Monday, 18 June 2012

What Story Do You Think You're Writing?

Arthur's Tractor
'Arthur's Tractor', written by Pippa Goodhart, and illustrated by Colin Paine


I began writing the story that became 'Arthur's Tractor' with a simple aim; to capture some of the fun of mechanical sounds that I remembered from The Little Red Engine stories (by Diana Ross and Leslie Wood) of my own early childhood.  I couldn't have told you what happened in the stories, but I did remember the joy of those repeated 'CHUFFA CHUFF' train noises, and the 'WHOOEEE' whenever anything exciting happened. 

Funnily enough I came across 'The Little Red Engine Goes To Market' deep in a box of dusty books just yesterday as I was unpacking them onto the shelves in our new house.  There are other sounds in the book which I hadn't remembered - 'And it drew up at at the platform SHUUUH'.  Going uphill made the engine go HUTCHA BA HUTCHA BA HUTCHA BA BAAAA'.  And there are animal noises too.  What there isn't is much of a story; simply a journey recorded, animals collected and taken to market, and then home to the shed/bed. 

Anyway, it was those kinds of sounds that I was after, and I chose a tractor as my vehicle.  Arthur, the farmer, came into my head from I don't know where, and we were off -
'Arthur's tractor ploughed up and down, turning green to brown.
Chugga thrum, chugga thrum, chugga chugga thrum ....'
And before long we've got an 'Eeeek!' that makes Arthur stop his tractor, turn off his engine and get down from his cab.  He stands for a while, and he scratches his head, then he siad, 'That must be the sprocket spring sprigget needing a twist and an oil', so he twists and oils, and gets back on his chugga thrum way before another sound repeats the process.

The much more DRAMATIC story is happening behind Arthur's back, unnoticed by him.  The 'Eeek!' is actually coming from a princess being faced with a dragon.  Then the 'THUD THUD THUD' comes from a prince arriving on a horse, etc.  The fun, I hope, for a child is in knowing what the narrator, and Arthur, apparently don't know, because, of course, even very young children can 'read' pictures.

Arthur's and the fairy tale stories come together at the end when Arthur's plough blade breaks.  Arthur then uses the prince's sword, welded with dragon breath, to mend the blade.  And this is where the question of 'what story do you think you're writing?' comes in. 

It was only some time after the story was written, and when it was on it's way to publication, that it dawned on me (duh!) that what I'd done in this story was to literally turn a sword into a plough share.  Clearly that Biblical message towards peace rather than war was imbedded in me, and had come out in literal form.  This is the only one of my stories to end with the cliche of 'they all lived happily ever after'; a nod to the fairytale ingredients I'd used, but also because the characters have now all paired-up into happy friendships.  They've achieved peace.

But something else was going on subconsciously too because, at the end, Arthur makes friends with the princess who is called Edith.  Arthur and Edith were the names of my paternal grandparents who I never knew.  Of course I was aware of that as I used the names, but I hadn't consciously made the link with their son, my father.  My father was a man who worked in a very practical way to bring peace rather than war to the world.  He became the President of the International Court of Justice in the Hague; an institution which few are aware of (it's nothing to do with the International Criminal Court), where boundary disputes are considered and resolved, bringing peaceful solutions to such problems.  And that is why I dedicated 'Arthur's Tractor' book to my father. 

So a story intended to simply enjoy some mechanical sounds, along with a bit of visual trickery, wrote itself into being, if you like, a book about peaceful resolution to conflict.  That surprises me!

Have any of you found stories writing themselves into something different from the story you thought you were writing?


22 comments:

  1. Facinating, Pippa. This story is so personal to you, I wonder how you would have felt if your publisher had wanted changes.

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    1. There's a lot in common between poetry writing and picture book writing. I'm sure there's a blog to be written about that, but not by me because I don't reckon to be a poet!
      I'm so glad your children have enjoyed the Little Ghosties. I'll blog the story about where THAT story came from at some point near to Halloween!

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    2. Woops! I got the comment for Elli into the reply to Moira box - sorry!

      What I wanted to say to you, Moira, was that, as far as I can remember, the only change asked for by the publisher was for a slightly soppier ending than I'd originally done. They wanted Arthur and Edith to be clearly romantically linked at the end, as well as simply working together on the tractor mechanics. But one American reviewer on Amazon interpreted this rather harshly as Arthur 'hitting on' Edith, even though the feeling is clearly mutual!

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  2. Oh yes, all the time! I mainly write children's poems (although I'm working on some picture book manuscripts too), and the good thing about poems is that you're not tied to any length or structure, which means you can let them write themselves. I quite frequently start a poem and then find it finishing in a way that I hadn't intended at all. By the way we LOVE your 'Three Little Ghosties' - when we borrowed it from the library my children asked for it again and again and again.

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  3. I love the sound of your story, Pippa. I really like books where a whole other story is going on in the illustrations (like the wonderful 'Rose the Hen went for a walk'). My children love feeling clever and spotting something even the narrator has missed. I'm off to find Arthur's Tractor on Amazon!

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    1. Actually, Abie, I think that I may well have been influenced by my love of the brilliantly simple Rosie's Walk when I wrote this. It's one of those tricks which can more easily be done by an author/illustrator such as Pat Hutchins, and a writer who doesn't illustrate, like me, has to write long illustrative explanations in order to make it work.

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  4. I adore hearing the stories behind stories, and with this insight I'm going to search out 'Arthur's Tractor'.

    Plus you've really got me thinking, Pippa. Yes, in my writing my subconscious takes me places I hadn't intended to go, and often brings me back to places I'd been trying to avoid.

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    1. I too love hearing the story behind the story. I loved the fact that Korky Paul's inspiration for Winnie the Witch's splashes of colour came from watching a Red Arrows display. Somebody should compile a book of The Stories of Stories!

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  5. Hi Pippa, Really interesting post.
    I feel really dopey for not realising until it was pointed out many times, that Don't Panic Annika! obviously draws on my previous life as a research developmental psychologist, researching early child development. I was convinced it was just a fun story. I was quite put out, even, when it was first suggested that it was also slightly educational, but probably mainly because I felt silly for not having realised what was really obvious. I'm glad bits of us sneak into our stories. It makes for less generic stories, I reckon. And I like the story behind Arthur's Tractor (and love the pictures-telling-the-real-story element of the book).

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    1. I think that whenever you read a story by somebody you know well you tend to think, ah, I know where THAT came from! And I'm sure that you and I aren't the only ones blind to ourselves in that way!

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  6. An interesting read Pippa, thank you. My first PB is 'Mrs MacCready Was Ever So greedy', where the lady in question eats far too much than is good for her and meets a rather sticky end. Given that I'm quite petite and a vegetarian, I'm not sure which bit of me is in that book! maybe I'm working something out of my system?!

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    1. Oh, I know Mrs MacCready Was Ever So Greedy! In fact I've just referenced it in a report to another picture book writer. I love the way that you can't quite believe that she really will go Pop, but then.....! Excellent!

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  7. It's not until someone reviews my books that they notice the 'hidden' themes. For example my 'Best Jumper' book - many of the reviewers noted that crafting and recycling are part of the story. Something I'd not thought about and both are close to my heart - so these themes just snuck in whilst I wasn't looking.

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    1. And I think that they should be there. It's that individual perspective which lets stories give us a new (somebody else's) view on life, and that's how they broaden our horizons and open us to new joys. My wise old Dad used to say that the point of education was that it gave you so many more things to enjoy, and that's true of stories too.

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  8. Pippa, this sounds like an adorable book - what a fantastic idea to have the fairy tale story happening behind the farmer! It's one of those "I wish I had thought of that" ideas!! I love when, after finishing a story, you discover how your subconscious influenced it!

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    1. Writing that sort of story is a bit of guilty pleasure for a writer because, of course, it makes rather a lot of demands on the illustrator. But Colin Paine did all I'd asked for, and more, adding wonderful little visual subplots to do with an egg hatching, a fox, a frog and a pigeon.

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  9. Arthur's Tractor sounds delightful and imaginative. I look forward to reading it. I love how you explained how you discovered the hidden meaning.

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  10. Thanks for the noisy illumination, giggle evoking insights and rich-n-thick history to a book I already enjoy so much!

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    1. Lovely to read that you've enjoyed Arthur's Tractor. And I've just enjoyed having a look on your interesting blog.

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  11. Very interesting to see how this morphed into such a multi-layered book. A story begins to work for me when it finds its theme - which it often seems to do itself.

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  12. That's it exactly, Jane ; if it's all working well, it is the story itself that seems to find its own theme. Ironic that the best sort of story invention seems to involve the author being least attached to the process, at least consciously.

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